Let me start out by saying how very impressed I am by the book-smarts and general overall intellect of the other folks participating in this read-along, sponsored by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!). How do I know these folks are so dazzling? Because, of course, they shared many of my own insights about the first section of this novel by Michael Chabon. And people who agree with you are, of course, brilliant.
Here’s a run-down on the areas of general (though not complete) agreement in the first section of the book:
– The characters were difficult to tell apart.
– It was also difficult to tease out everyone’s racial background, though there’s some debate on exactly what it means that we wanted to know everyone’s racial background, as well as to whether this ambiguity is an intentional literary device or just fuzzy writing.
– Chabon is a linguistic virtuoso.
– The novel so far is kind of masculine.
– No one is sure about the whole race thing. You could say this not just about our reading of Telegraph Avenue, but in fact, in almost every context imaginable. We are, in fact, never really sure about the whole race thing. As a sociologist who spends some amount of time reading, writing and teaching about race, let me assure you that no one is ever really sure about the whole race thing. If they tell you they are, they are lying.
Also, I learned a lot from other folks’ painstaking summary of what had happened in the book so far and who all the characters were, as well as some outside research on the genesis of this novel (that it might have originally been the idea for a television series).
In the second section of the book, The Church of Vinyl, things start to pick up a bit. The characters have sorted themselves out. I’m beginning to get some answers to my questions as to how the lives of Nat and Archy became entwined in the first place. I’m not sure if their back story is completely convincing, but it’s certainly plausible. The bad news is that one of my favorite characters, Gwen Stacks, seems to have just driven herself out of the novel. Drat.
In this section, I think I’ve begun to figure out what it is that’s specifically puzzling to me about race in this novel. When I think about race in the United States, and specifically about race along the black-white axis, and then even more specifically about combining race and masculinity, I think about sports. And then I might think about hip hop culture and rap. Chabon represents all those axes with the character of G Bad (Gibson Goode), a former NFL quarterback turned media/corporate mogul who is angling to locate one of his “Thangs” in Oakland on Telegraph Avenue. Though he has apparently made some money off of rap artists, he gives a rather lengthy speech in The Church of Vinyl explaining why rap represents a kind of backward slide in African-American musicality. Really?
I think this begins to hit on a key aspect of why the novel up until this point is a bit confusing to me. Chabon is exploring blackness and whiteness in America, but sometimes it seems like he’s exploring the particular versions of those identities from a culture that faded out of existence 40 or so years ago. Obviously, there’s Archy’s three-piece, purple Funky Suit. Add to this the fact that Nat and Archy singlehandedly bring down the average age in their band to about, oh, 50 instead of the 73 it would be without them. And even the kids–the adolescent boys–in this novel like music and style that’s really, pretty old.
What, exactly, is Chabon saying about black style and culture in 2012? That it’s gone corporate like G Bad, as opposed to the more “authentic” music and style of 1968? The “bad” guy is the black man who’s successfully made himself incredibly wealthy and powerful while the “good” guy (at least the black one) is a philandering adolescent who seems incapable of growing up in any meaningful way?
I sense a kind of bias evolving here, though it’s obviously still early, and there’s plenty of time to head in some other directions. But I’m going to go on the record here as saying that the late 60s and early 70s were not, in fact, the height of a certain type of black cultural influence on our collective culture as Americans. I say a “certain type” because we must remember that “black culture,” like any kind of culture, is always a moving target. We could say that “white culture” during the time period involved dropping acid and wearing your hair long, but my parents had nothing to do with that. Their culture involved going to college, buying a house, having kids and maybe, just maybe, listening to a little Bob Dylan. Sociologists and other folks who study culture try to be really careful about acknowledging that for whatever you might want to identify as the “dominant” culture of the time period, there’s also always a whole hell of a lot of other stuff going on that might have very little to do with what’s “dominant.” See Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings for Exhibit One and Two.
One final thought. It’s hard reading a novel in pieces, which I am trying quite diligently to do. It’s like, I don’t know, having to watch a television series in real time, waiting a week between episodes. A drag. An attenuated experience. So let me pronounce myself quite ready to see what happens next.